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Denethor II
Tolkien's legendarium character
Aliases Steward of Gondor
Race Men
Book(s) The Return of the King (1955)

Denethor II, son of Ecthelion II, is a fictional character in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Return of the King, which is the third and final part of his novel The Lord of the Rings. He is the 26th and final Ruling Steward of Gondor.


Denethor was born in T.A. 2930, the first son and third child of Ecthelion II.[1] Ecthelion became the 25th Ruling Steward of Gondor in T.A. 2953, and at the same time Denethor became the heir apparent, inheriting the Horn of Gondor. He succeeded his father as Denethor II in T.A. 2984.

As stated in the early chapters and the Appendices of The Return of the King, Denethor was widely considered a man of great will, foresight, and strength. However, he failed to reach out to his people, who flocked instead to Thorongil, an outsider who served Denethor's father with great renown. Thorongil vanished from Gondor four years before Denethor would succeed his father as Ruling Steward. Thorongil (who was secretly Aragorn, Chieftain of the Dúnedain of the North and hence a claimant to Gondor's throne) had advised Ecthelion to put faith in the wizard Gandalf, whom Denethor distrusted.

In T.A. 2976 Denethor had married Finduilas, daughter of Prince Adrahil of Dol Amroth. She gave birth to two sons, Boromir and Faramir, before dying when they were ten and five years old, respectively (T.A. 2988). Denethor never remarried, and became more grim and silent than before.

In a conversation with Pippin just before the first meeting with Denethor, Gandalf described Denethor as "…proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power [than Théoden of Rohan], though he is not called a king." Following that meeting, after Pippin has sworn fealty to Denethor, Gandalf further commented:

He is not as other men of this time…by some chance the blood of Westernesse runs nearly true in him, as it does in his other son, Faramir, and yet did not in Boromir. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.[2]

Unlike Saruman, Denethor was too strong to be corrupted by Sauron. In the novel, he began secretly using a palantír to probe Sauron's strength, though he incorrectly insisted he was able to control it. The effort aged him quickly, and the knowledge of Sauron's overwhelming force depressed him greatly, mostly due to deliberately biased visions from the palantír on the part of Sauron. Boromir's death depressed Denethor further, and he became ever more grim. Nonetheless he continued to fight Sauron with every resource at his disposal until the forces of Mordor arrived at the gates of the White City, at which point he lost all hope.

In the published essay on the Palantiri, Tolkien wrote:

He [Denethor] must have guessed that the Ithil-stone [Sauron's palantír] was in evil hands, and risked contact with it, trusting his strength. His trust was not entirely unjustified. Sauron failed to dominate him and could only influence him by deceits.

Saruman fell under the domination of Sauron... [while] Denethor remained steadfast in his rejection of Sauron, but was made to believe that his defeat was inevitable, and so fell into despair. The reasons for this difference were no doubt that in the first place Denethor was a man of great strength of will and maintained the integrity of his personality until the final blow of the (apparently) mortal wound of his only surviving son.[3]

Near the novel's climactic battle, Denethor ordered the warning beacons of Gondor to be lit, and forces were called in from all of Gondor's provinces. The civilian population of Minas Tirith was sent away to safety. As invasion seemed imminent, Denethor sent the Red Arrow to the Rohirrim as a call for aid. The Council decided that Gondor could make no stroke of its own, but Denethor ordered Gondor's forces to the city's outer defences at Osgiliath and the great wall of the Rammas Echor. He wanted to make a stand, since the defences had been built at great expense and not yet been overrun, and he assumed that no help was forthcoming from Rohan since his messenger had not returned with the Red Arrow (the messenger had in fact been killed by Orcs during the ride back to Minas Tirith).

The outer defences were placed under the command of Faramir. Faramir knew his men could not stand against Sauron's army, but he nonetheless obeyed out of respect for his father and late brother. In the ensuing battle Faramir was badly wounded, apparently mortally; his body was carried back in the retreat to the city, which was now under siege by vastly superior forces.

Denethor's spirit was broken by the apparent loss of his son, and he ordered his servants to burn him alive on a pyre prepared for himself and Faramir in Rath Dínen. He took the white rod of his office and broke it over his knee, casting the pieces into the flames. He laid himself down on the pyre and so died, clasping the palantír in his hands. He also attempted to take Faramir with him, but was thwarted by the timely intervention of Peregrin Took, who saved Faramir from the flames with help from Gandalf and the guard Beregond. They were too late to save Denethor, however; he burned to death as Sauron's forces stormed the gate.

The Stewardship technically passed to Faramir, but he was in no condition to exercise any authority, still being close to death; he was taken to the Houses of Healing with little hope. But contrary to Denethor's forebodings, Faramir recovered, and the Stewardship was not emasculated. Indeed, when Aragorn became King, he not only confirmed the Stewardship to Faramir and his successors, but raised their rank to Princes of Ithilien.


Denethor's madness and despair has been compared to Shakespeare's King Lear. Both men are first outraged when their children, Faramir and Cordelia, respectively,– refuse to aid them, but then grieve upon their children's death – which is only perceived in case of Faramir. According to Drout, both Denethor and Lear also show "despair of God's mercy" which is extremely dangerous in a leader who has to defend his realm.[4]

Unlike Aragorn and his allies, Denethor is also incapable of displaying what Tolkien called "northern courage" in Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics, i.e., the spirit to carry on in the face of certain defeat and death.[5]


Denethor was voiced by William Conrad in Rankin/Bass's 1980 animated adaptation of The Return of the King, and by Peter Vaughan in BBC Radio's 1981 serialization.

Peter Jackson adaptation[edit]

In Peter Jackson's live-action film trilogy, Denethor was played by John Noble, and was portrayed in a substantially more negative light than the novel. In the literature, Denethor is described as an exceptionally capable, committed ruler, although grim of bearing. He is shown as chiefly responsible for successfully defending Gondor for decades and gathering what strength it can muster, at great personal cost and sacrifice. According to Tolkien, he was:

...a masterful man, both wise and learned beyond the measure of those days, and strong willed, confident in his own powers, and dauntless. (...) He was proud, but this was by no means personal: he loved Gondor and its people, and deemed himself appointed by destiny to lead them in this desperate time.[3]

In contrast, in the Jackson adaptation he is portrayed as a weak ruler who passively (and even actively) works against his kingdom's defense. The film also depicts him as openly favoring Boromir over Faramir, to the point of treating his younger son with barely disguised contempt.

He first appears in a deleted scene in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, but does not have a major role until the third and final film in the trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. In the DVD commentary of that film, Jackson describes Denethor as a sort of Shakespearean tragic character. He refuses to light the beacons of Gondor to call for the aid of Rohan. The responsibility of doing so lies in the hands of the young Hobbit, Peregrin Took, who is perilously sent up to light the beacon by Gandalf who believes that urgent help from Rohan is needed to combat the inevitable assault from Sauron's army, which lurks in Osgiliath. While in the novel, Denethor has already lit the beacons before Gandalf even entered Gondor. He sends his remaining son Faramir and all of his cavalry on a suicide mission to enemy-captured Osgiliath. In the novel, Denethor's carefully timed cavalry charge is targeted against the advancing Enemy in the open terrain near Minas Tirith, and actually rescues Faramir and his forces that were defending the Pelennor fields outside the city (Faramir was struck down by a "Southron chieftain" and was about to be finished off when the cavalry arrived). Apparently shocked by the size of Sauron's army (which in the novel he has already seen in his Palantír), he starts panicking and calls for the city's defenders to flee; whereas in the novel, he states that it is senseless to run from the enemy as there is no hope of escape.

In the movie, Gandalf knocks out Denethor before taking command of the defence. This does not occur in the book, and Gandalf is generally far more respectful of Denethor, indeed it is not likely Gandalf in the novel would be willing or able (allowed) to physically attack and throw down the ruler with impunity in his own citadel, in full sight of his guard and soldiery. In the book Gandalf, though critical, is depicted as more compassionate towards Denethor when the latter goes insane (rather than being disgusted and angry as in the movie), understanding that the source of the madness is Sauron and the Palantír Denethor was using at great risk and difficulty to facilitate Gondor's efforts against the Enemy. Rather than being in opposition to Gandalf's command of the defence, in the book Denethor is indifferent, and tells his men to follow whom they will "even the grey fool" (Gandalf). In the movie Denethor is also shown as self-indulgent, eating and drinking gluttonously while listening to Pippin's songs as the besiegers approach the city, whereas in the book he is sternly ascetic in his habits, wearing armour and a sword day and night, and never actually has Pippin sing for him.

Pippin's relationship with Denethor is also altered significantly. In the movie, Pippin's oath of service to Denethor is comical to Gandalf, who openly disapproves. In the novel, Gandalf does not suggest Pippin join Denethor's service, but praises him for such an honourable course of action and treats his oath with dignity. Pippin himself is proud to be in Denethor's service, and is deeply worried about his new master. When Denethor suggests Pippin might sing a song, the latter does not consider himself or Shire songs worthy of the lord, and in the end is not forced to sing. When confronting Gandalf on his pyre, Denethor reveals that he considered Pippin a spy sent by Gandalf, and this suspicion is apparently vindicated when Pippin is the one who brings Gandalf to the citadel before Denethor's pyre is lit. He also reveals that he kept Pippin in his service, in spite of considering him a spy, for the purpose of extracting information out of him in turn (ostensibly about Aragorn).

Death scene[edit]

In the movie, Denethor's death is significantly altered. Denethor attempts to burn himself and Faramir to death in the domed Stewards' tomb in the city's graveyards. Gandalf then knocks Denethor off the pyre with a staff procured from a nearby guard, while Pippin throws Faramir down off the pyre. As Pippin is trying to put out the hem of Faramir's tunic, Denethor attacks him. At that moment, Gandalf rears his horse Shadowfax on his hind legs, and knocks Denethor into the burning funeral pyre. Denethor then, in a final glance among the flames, realizes that his son is still alive. Seconds later, Denethor is engulfed in flames, runs to the tip of the promontory of Minas Tirith, casts himself from it and falls to his death.

The film only hints at Denethor's use of the palantír which drives him mad, information revealed in the Pyre scene. Jackson also has Denethor jump off the Citadel in addition to burning himself on the Pyre, one of the earliest changes.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tolkien, J.R.R.; Christopher Tolkien (ed.) (1996). The Peoples of Middle-earth, "The Heirs of Elendil". Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. pp. 206–7. ISBN 0-395-82760-4. 
  2. ^ The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, "Minas Tirith"
  3. ^ a b Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel (2012). Tolkien, Christopher, ed. Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. pp. 526–527. ISBN 054795199X. 
  4. ^ Smith, Leigh (2007). "The Influence of King Lear on Lord of the Rings". In Croft, Janet Brennan. Tolkien and Shakespeare: Essays on Shared Themes and Language. McFarland & Company. p. 140. ISBN 978-0-78642-827-4. 
  5. ^ Solopova, Elizabeth (2009), Languages, Myths and History: An Introduction to the Linguistic and Literary Background of J.R.R. Tolkien's Fiction, New York City: North Landing Books, p. 28–9, ISBN 0-9816607-1-1 
  6. ^ Sibley, Brian (2006). Peter Jackson: A Film-maker's Journey. London: HarperCollins. p. 345. ISBN 0-00-717558-2. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Ecthelion II
Stewards of Gondor Succeeded by